Cases That Test Your Skills

Infested with worms, but are they really there?

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Mr. H, age 51, abuses alcohol and methamphetamine. He presents to the ED for detoxification and believes he is infested with parasites. How can you best help him?



CASE Detoxification and preoccupation with parasites

Mr. H, age 51, has an extensive history of alcohol and methamphetamine use. He presents to the emergency department (ED) requesting inpatient detoxification. He says he had been drinking alcohol but is unable to say how much. His blood ethanol level is 61 mg/dL (unintoxicated level: <50 mg/dL), and a urine drug screen is positive for methamphetamine; Mr. H also admits to using fentanyl. The ED team treats Mr. H’s electrolyte abnormalities, initiates thiamine supplementation, and transfers him to a unit for inpatient withdrawal management.

On the detoxification unit, Mr. H receives a total of 1,950 mg of phenobarbital for alcohol withdrawal and stabilizes on a buprenorphine/naloxone maintenance dose of 8 mg/2 mg twice daily for methamphetamine and fentanyl use. Though he was not taking any psychiatric medications prior to his arrival at the ED, Mr. H agrees to restart quetiapine—which he took when he was younger for suspected bipolar depression—50 mg/d at bedtime.

During Mr. H’s 3-day detoxification, the psychiatry team evaluates him. Mr. H says he believes he is infested with worms. He describes a prior sensation of “meth mites,” or the feeling of bugs crawling under his skin, while using methamphetamines. However, Mr. H says his current infestation feels distinctively different, and he had continued to experience these sensations during prior periods of abstinence.

The psychiatry team expresses concern over his preoccupation with infestations, disheveled appearance, poor hygiene, and healed scars from excoriation. Mr. H also reports poor sleep and appetite and was observed writing an incomprehensible “experiment” on a paper towel. Due to his bizarre behavior, delusional thoughts, and concerns about his inability to care for himself, the team admits Mr. H to the acute inpatient psychiatric unit on a voluntary commitment.

HISTORY Long-standing drug use and repeated hospital visits

Mr. H reports a history of drug use. His first documented ED visit was >5 years before his current admission. He has a family history of substance abuse and reports previously using methamphetamine, heroin, and alcohol. Mr. H was never diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, but when he was younger, there were suspicions of bipolar depression, with no contributing family psychiatric history. Though he took quetiapine at an unspecified younger age, Mr. H did not follow through with any outpatient mental health services or medications.

Mr. H first reported infestation symptoms 6 months before his current inpatient admission, when he came to the ED with complaints of bumps on his arms and legs and reported seeing bugs in his carpet. He was prescribed permethrin 5% topical cream for suspected bedbug infestation.

In the 6 months prior to his current admission, Mr. H came to the hospital >20 times for various reasons, including methamphetamine abuse, alcohol withdrawal, opiate overdose, cellulitis, wound checks, and 3 visits for hallucinations for which he requested physical evaluation and medical care. His substance use was the suspected cause of his tactile and visual hallucinations of infestation because formication—the sensation of something crawling on your skin—is commonly associated with substance use. Although the etiology of Mr. H’s hallucinations was unclear, his substance use may have either precipitated them, or, as the team suspects, masked an underlying pathology that eventually became more evident and required psychiatric treatment.

Continue to: The authors' observations


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